Executive SummaryThe Euromaidan movement that emerged in late 2013 on Kyev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti ("Independence Square") first crystalized around opposition to increasingly authoritarian rule by President Viktor Yanukovych, especially his government's effort to reverse the pro-Western policies of his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko. The namesake Independence Square has special meaning to Ukrainians. In 1990, what began as student protests on then Lenin Square ended a year later in a national referendum in which Ukrainians declared independence from the Soviet Union. A November 2004 rally on the now-renamed Independence Square against election fraud sparked a series of nationwide protests over the next seventeen days that became known as the Orange Revolution. Euromaidan protestors eagerly took up the Orange Revolution chant "Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!" Their claim was chillingly tested in late November and early December 2013, when an increasingly desperate Yanukovych sent Interior Ministry special forces to clear Independence Square. Yanukovych's willingness to try and subdue protestors with armed force marked a critical turning point, both for his ill-fated government and for the Euromaidan movement. Into this fray moved a mix of ultranationalist and assorted far right paramilitary groups, all decidedly at odds with Euromaidan's progressive, democratic tenor. The largest of these, Svoboda, possessed a well-defined political program, having earned parliamentary seats in 2012 by winning a tenth of votes cast in nationwide elections. Several existing paramilitary groups coalesced to form Right Sector, the declared goal of which was not closer ties with Europe but to "build a nationalist Ukrainian state and stage a nationalist revolution." Svoboda and Right Sector possessed what the early Euromaidan protestors lacked — boots on the street that were primed to answer in-kind any exercise of violent force by the Yanukovych government. For the Euromaidan movement, it was a devil's bargain. When an interim government formed after Yanukovych fled the country, Svoboda demanded powerful posts and control of the National Security Council. Unable to muster popular support — Right Sector's Dmytro Yarosh managed only 0.7% in the May 2014 presidential elections, and Svoboda lost significant ground in the October 2014 parliamentary elections — both nevertheless wield outsized political power by virtue of large, well-armed paramilitaries. As the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated through 2014, the newly elected Poroshenko government in Kyev found itself dependent upon paramilitary forces as the sharp end of Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. The paramilitaries exploited this to demand significant concessions from the Kyev government, which well short of exercising a monopoly on armed force within the country was not even the preponderant force. Today, as the Poroshenko government seeks a détente in eastern Ukraine, paramilitaries that have borne the brunt of the fighting are increasingly vocal in opposing any accord with the separatists. This poses a significant, and in the author's view, disconcertedly underrated, dilemma for the Poroshenko government: how to prevent well-armed, anti-democratic forces within the country —vociferously opposed to both European integration and any accommodation with Russia and its (in their view) proxy forces in the east — from destabilizing Ukraine's fragile democracy?
"Our pilgrimage through the desert is not yet finished." -- Dmytro DontsovIn his novel Light in August, William Faulkner wrote, "Memory believes before knowing remembers." What Faulkner intended to convey is the idea that memory is more powerful than any seeming-objective recounting of events. Among Ukraine's willing combatants in the country's eastern Donbas region, memory indeed believes. The essayist Mykola Ryabchuk speculated several years ago that it was possible for Ukraine to "glorify as heroes" 20th century nationalist leaders such as Stepan Bandera without at the same time reviving their abhorrent political theories.
However, as Renata Caruso observed, "the ideology of today’s radical Ukrainian nationalism did not appear out of nothing. Its roots were formed in the messianic vision of the Ukrainian nation," like that offered by Dmytro Dontsov, who wrote, “the conﬂict between Europe and Russia is a conﬂict between two civilizations, between two political, social, and cultural and religious ideals.” For Ukraine, August and other recent months have not been months of light, but ones of growing darkness. The Logic of Realism in Today's Ukraine "A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny." -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Realpolitik was once described as a balance between cynicism and a sense of reality. That reality—in a realist paradigm—is an understanding that calculations about power dominate state thinking, and that states compete for power amongst themselves, which has a certain zero-sum quality about it. John Mearsheimer maintains that for some, "the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century" since for them, "Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy." Even a cursory observation of events in Ukraine over the past several weeks should disabuse anyone of such a notion. The events of August led the Ukrainian writer Yurii Andrukhovych to lament, "The 21st century has been expelled from the Donbas and destroyed by fire. Its place has been taken by a new, horrific Middle Ages." James Jeffrey writes in a recent essay:
"We see here the makings of a heroic myth to counterbalance the long-dominant image of the impeccable Red Army. Any nation invents some historical myths of the sort, and we can only hope that every nation will be able to keep the irrational energy of its historical myths under rational control."
Moral clarity, except of course when the government in question has an entente with political forces that enthusiastically embrace creeds we consider immoral, and that reject categorically a vision of Ukraine integrated into western economic and defense alliances. The author believes the Ukrainian government deserves a good deal of forbearance in prosecuting the conflict in its east. It is, after all, a civil war in which Russia plays a continuing part, and the government's options there are finite and imperfect. That being said, the constellation of fascist, self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, and other far right groups that surround the Ukrainian government today, especially their associated paramilitaries, is very troubling. Many vociferously oppose European integration, something supposedly at the core of what we favor. Their preference is far closer to something John Mearsheimer was widely excoriated for suggesting last year, viz., "a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither the Russian nor the Western camp." The leader of Ukraine's largest paramilitary, Pravyi Sektor ("Right Sector") openly declares against the European Union and NATO, and for a non-aligned Ukraine. Right Sector's role as a protagonist in the rising violence and criminal activity in the country's west—far removed from civil unrest in the eastern Donbas region—triggered border security concerns this summer in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. Ugly undertones frequently intersperse the far right's rejection of European civil society. Consider this utterance by a self-proclaimed "Ukrainian nationalist":
"It is the established position of NATO, the European Union, and the United States that Ukraine is facing external aggression from Russia. Under those circumstances, to not provide arms is to undercut that position—to intimate that somehow the democratically elected government in Kiev is not fully legitimate, and is to blame for the conflict. [...] Providing arms would end Washington’s 'not providing arms' policy, thereby establishing moral clarity as a first step in a long duel with Moscow." [emphasis added]
Another important paramilitary—the neo-fascist Azov Battalion, part of Ukraine's National Guard—said this in justifying its use of the Wolfsangel ("Wolf’s Hook"), a symbol often used by neo-Nazis groups which it calls “the idea of the nation”:
"Politicians like Jewish oligarch Mykhailo Dobkin, or Vadim Kolesnichenko—both openly sponsored by Russia—wholeheartedly support anything and everything to do with the EU when it comes to attacking Ukrainian identity...."
Whether one accepts John Mearsheimer's argument that we have created the crisis in Ukraine, we have undoubtedly helped legitimize these groups. Despite dismal support in last year's elections, they exert disproportionate influence over a central government critically dependent upon them as the sharp end of its military response to Russian-backed separatism. It is the author's contention that the Ukrainian government's alliance with this constellation is corroding the country's civic undergirding, something critical to its success as a democracy. The country's degenerating civil discourse risks unthinkable political events. Ukraine's "Loss of Possibility" "Het' vid Moskvy!" (Away from Moscow!) -- Mykola Khyl'ovyi The European Council on Foreign Relations asked rhetorically, "Is Europe losing Ukraine?" We watch an unfolding dynamic one analyst calls "the split into historical 'sub-Ukraines'," a process another warned risks creating "the next Libya on the doorstep of Europe." These events and others beg perhaps a more pertinent question—are Ukrainians losing Ukraine? Contemporary Ukraine seems fated to live out Bismark's dictum about countries that exist by the grace of their neighbors. As Vladislav Gulevich laments, Ukraine is "located at the interface of Europe and Eurasia, being peripheral to both, and, for the most part, remains a pawn in geopolitical games." Add to this a nearly century-old observation by Dmytro Dontsov, the leading theorist of Ukrainian fascism (or nationalism, depending on one's viewpoint) that “Every weakening of Europe—be it the decline of Poland, the weakening of Turkey or Sweden—fatally affected Ukraine." Many Europeans today are decidedly ambiguous about the further eastward expansion of their political, economic and defense communities in general, and toward Ukrainian aspirations of joining these communities in particular. The inanition of European governments in the aftermath of Russia's Crimea annexation indisputably affected Ukraine for the worse. Russian opportunism in eastern Ukraine is one visible effect, but by no means the only one. Today, Ukraine is fighting on two fronts and winning on neither. One is the military front in eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting escalated at the end of the summer after negotiations failed to produce agreement on a proposed 30km-wide demilitarized zone along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine. While a tenuous ceasefire is now in place, the Ukrainian economy continues to bleed USD5 million a day according to official estimates. The other is a political front, where the Ukrainian government is combatting increased lawlessness from ultra-nationalist and fascist paramilitaries, including some that allegedly have aligned with organized crime syndicates. The country's accelerating civic degeneration is troubling. Take the month of August, for example. The militant nationalist group Right Sector attempts to destabilize the Poroshenko government by forcing a nationwide no-confidence referendum. The Russia-leaning parliamentary group Opposition Bloc called for parliament to dissolve after a recent armed clash between Right Sector's Ukrainian Volunteer Corps and local police in the city of Mukachevo, only 30km from Ukraine's western border with Hungary. A Right Sector "reserve battalion" opened fire on Opposition Bloc supporters in eastern Ukraine's Kharkiv, the country's second largest city. Right Sector's increasingly brazen acts recall the baleful words of Volodymyr Martynet in 1929:
“The 'Idea of the Nation' is the central slogan and the core of the ideological doctrine of Social Nationalism. The letter 'N' in the monogram indicates nation-centeredness of our ideology."
Amidst all this, Ukraine's economy spirals into the abyss. The complex, layered nature of the conflict with its pronounced internecine facet is inadequately described by the Ukrainian government's idiosyncratic use of the term hybrid warfare (more on this later) to mask antagonisms that are longstanding, deep and historic. To acknowledge this by no means denies irredentist Russia's malevolence toward a western-looking Ukraine or the fractious effect of Russia's armed intervention in eastern Ukraine. August 2015: The Bewildering Month “The statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.” -- Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger (1910) August and early September saw an odd succession of events that merits further reflection. On 1 August, the Ukrainian security service known by the acronym SBU leaked documents to a Western journalist. They purported to show the eastern Ukraine separatist Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) was "building a dirty bomb with the assistance of Russian scientists." Then two days later, on 3 August, the Hvylya website published a polemic claiming Russia was planning a "nuclear provocation" in Ukraine. And on 5 August, an SBU counterintelligence operation in western Ukraine's Ivano-Frankivsk region intercepted what it described as a "small quantity" of uranium-238 concealed inside a Pringles snack can, reportedly in transit to Romania. The 1 August "dirty bomb" story is based on what the SBU claimed were primary documents it acquired when it hacked a separatist e-mail account in early July. The SBU disclosed three documents to a single journalist from what it claimed was a larger dossier. The leaked documents purport to be e-mail messages between DPR Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko and other DPR officials. The SBU claimed the e-mails establish that a DPR armed unit—identified as the Vostok Battalion—was in control of the former Radon (a Ukrainian state enterprise) radioactive waste site in the eastern city of Donetsk’s Oktyabrsky district. It also claimed that in June, the Vostok Brigade removed radioactive material from the formerly sealed waste site and transported it to a DPR military base. There, the SBU claimed, unidentified Russian scientists were assisting to weaponize the radioactive material, which Ukrainian authorities said contains the dangerous radioisotopes cesium-137, cobalt-60, strontium-90, and yttrium-90. There is no way independently to authenticate (or rebut) the leaked documents—which can be viewed here—and without prejudging, it is reasonable to question their authenticity. Ukrainian and Russian intelligence agencies are both known to fabricate documents when it serves their purposes to do so. Likewise, claims to have hacked the other side's confidential documents are common to both. The SBU has not released other documents from the dossier of which the 1 August documents are said to be part, nor radio intercept transcripts that it claims corroborate the narrative. Not surprisingly, the SBU's claim was dismissed by DPR Deputy Defense Minister Eduard Basurin. He noted the waste site's location is widely known but that it remains sealed. Whether or not that is so, it would be complex and dangerous to excavate buried radioactive material from a sealed underground disposal site. Radioactive material once extracted from such a site would be difficult to handle and transport safely. It would not be easy to weaponize such material beyond some crude embodiment, such as a car or truck bomb or an simple radiological dispersal device. And transporting radiological material (in any embodiment) is subject to detection, interdiction, and attribution. Finally, no photoreconnaissance or satellite imagery has been placed in the public domain by the SBU (or anyone else) to corroborate the narrative. All this leads an impartial reader to question the documents' authenticity. While the scenario suggested in the leaked e-mails is not impossible, it seems unlikely. A far more practicable (and impactful) scenario would be to attack the Zaporizhia [in Russian, Zaporozhye] nuclear power plant in Enerhoda, about 300km from Donetsk and some 200km from the conflict zone. A May 2015 published report found "more than 3000 spent nuclear fuel rods are kept inside metal casks within towering concrete containers in an open-air yard close to a perimeter fence." Moving on, Sergey Klimovsky claimed in a 3 August polemic that Russia was planning a "nuclear provocation" inside Ukraine:
"Indeed, in this kingdom of boors and beggars we shall have—as soon as the Ukrainian power is established—to resort to the methods of Peter the Great: by terror we shall have to teach them to respect human dignity; by terror we shall inculcate in them respect for human life; by terror we will impose order."
He suggests Russia would instead target the cities of Debaltsevo, Shirokino, and/or Gorlovka. Klimovsky ends his essay by proposing three actions to prevent a nuclear strike on the Donbas: a United Nations tribunal to investigate the Malaysian airliner downing; deploying UN peacekeepers; and/or "if the wind in the second half of August blows steadily toward Russia." Of these, he suggests sardonically, "the wind is the most reliable." Klimovsky's speculation about a coming Russian nuclear provocation is one in a long series of allegations by both sides about nuclear and radiological (and as we will see, chemical) "false flag" attacks. Geraint Hughes defines them in the context of counter-terrorism operations as "atrocities committed by military or security personnel, which are then blamed on terrorists." He notes insurgent and terrorist groups may deliberately use false flag claims to absolve themselves of responsibility for civilian attacks. Russian voices, too, warn of false flag incidents. Mikhail Delyagin warned of a NATO nuclear false flag attack inside Ukraine during a December 2014 online radio interview:
"The Kremlin urgently needs to find someone who can be called a bigger terrorist than Russia...It would be tempting to blame a nuclear strike in the Donbas on the 'Kyev junta'. It would say, 'Here, look, Ukraine had nuclear weapons that it didn't hand over. So Russia was right to occupy Crimea because Ukraine violated the Budapest Treaty.' [...] Russia wouldn't feel sorry for the Donbas—after all, it's not Russian territory. But it wouldn't allow a nuclear strike against the city of Donetsk—the showcase of 'Russia-world'. It would only turn Donetsk into a radioactive waste site if it decided to abandon the city and employ Stalinist scorched earth tactics. So the people of Donetsk don't have to worry yet."
The August "dirty bomb" story and the speculations of Klimovsky and Delyagin about a "nuclear provocation" inside Ukraine betray a peculiar pathology. After all, the use of nuclear and radiological weapons is supposed to be inconceivable, or nearly so, as the American nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter wrote in 1960:
"We got some information from Kharkov. I wasn't inclined to believe it since Ukraine today is enthralled by a mass psychosis, saturated with rumors. But then it was confirmed indirectly from a source in the West. Really, I hope it's fake. I really hope it's just hostile propaganda. But you know, it's always better to be safe than sorry. The sequence is this: the Ukrainian army goes on offensive. Sure, it doesn't have the strength to attack, and demoralization is rampant. So it pretends to attack. [...] Then a tactical nuclear warhead explodes in its operational zone. And everyone shouts how the evil Russia has used nuclear weapons. [...] This is something our armed forces wouldn't do; it's unthinkable. But it's quite normal for the Americans, since both times in human history when nuclear weapons were used, they used them. To do it a third time isn't so difficult...These episodes are very disturbing. Since no one can explain who hit the Malaysian airliner, it was obviously those damned Russian animals, those damned barbarians. And they'll say those damned Russian barbarians used nuclear weapons against the defenseless Ukrainian army..."
"And then they'll shout that Putin is to blame, just like the Malaysian airliner. In reality no Russian officer, no Russian general, no lone madman can fire a tactical nuclear weapon without the Supreme Commander's direct order...I coined a phrase I loved and was very proud of: that they kept trying to ignite a world war in Ukraine, but it didn't work because 'the firewood was wet'...After all, Ukraine's not some Islamic country. But suddenly, there's a chance the situation there can be ignited...It'll leave behind no evidence. It's not a Malaysian airliner with three tons of cargo. There'll be nothing to photograph. And it'll be impossible to prove it wasn't us."
Unthinkable, it seems, except perhaps in certain dark corners of the Donbas conflict, where what approaches macabre enthusiasm feeds speculation about nuclear, radiological, and chemical conflict. The third incident received probably the least attention. The SBU reported that it interdicted radiological material—said to be a 5kg quantity of ore-grade uranium concealed inside a Pringles can—in western Ukraine's Ivano-Frankivsk region, reportedly on its way to Romania. The SBU detained four Ukrainian nationals. Russian commentators were quick to exploit the incident. Russia's Channel One warned, "the focus in Kyev is on the nuclear threat: this time, not a fictional threat from abroad, but very real and within the country itself." A headline in Russia's state-operated domestic news agency RIA-Novosti warned "the sale of U-238 on the black market will become a nightmare for Kyev." While incidents of this sort are not unknown in the region—the former Soviet borderlands have been the epicenter of nuclear smuggling since the early 1990s—each should be taken seriously. At the same time, Ukraine's radical Right Sector and Svoboda—with influence markedly disproportionate to their dismal popular support—are increasingly active in the country's west and northwestern regions. Their associated paramilitaries—the sharp end of the Ukrainian government's counterinsurgency campaign in the east—are now involved in smuggling rings operating in those regions and other criminal activities. There a growing alignment of Right Sector paramilitaries and organized crime syndicates. A widely reported incident in the city of Mukachevko in early July involved an armed battle between armed Right Sector militia and gunmen loyal to Mykhailo Lanyo, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who is suspected of involvement in organized crime-related smuggling operations (and who reportedly fled the country afterwards). The incident—which Ukraine's Prosecutor General classified as terrorism—was likely a dispute over control of cigarette smuggling routes to Hungary (and possibly Slovakia and Poland). The Mukachevko incident occurred after a meeting held at a local sports complex owned by Lanyo—Right Sector claimed they were discussing gym memberships—where the reported mediator was another Ukrainian parliament member, Viktor Baloga, who allegedly bankrolls the local Right Sector militia. One report called him "the master of Transcarpathia". After President Proshenko declared, “no political force should have armed cells and no political force will have one," a Right Sector spokesperson responded:
“We must contemplate some extremely unpleasant possibilities, just because we want to avoid them. Nobody, however, likes to think about anything unpleasant, even to avoid it. And so the crucial problem of thermonuclear war is frequently dispatched with the label 'War is unthinkable' —which, translated freely, means we don't want to think about it.”
“Until such an order is given" by its leader, Dmitry Yarosh, Right Sector members "are not going to surrender their weapons.” "Hybrid Warfare" and the Struggle for Ukrainian Identity "The immortal imperious will of the Ukrainian Nation, which ordered your ancestors to conquer the world and brought them to the walls of Constantinople and beyond the Caspian Sea and the Volga; which erected a powerful Ukrainian state...now claims authoritatively a new life, inaugurates a new era of Ukrainian nationalism and tells you: Stand up and fight!" --Introduction to The 44 Rules of Life of the Ukrainian Nationalist. Ukrainian leaders frequently characterize the country's internal conflict as hybrid warfare waged against Ukraine by Russia. Acknowledging the undeniable presence of Russian forces and support for proxy forces in eastern Ukraine, the use of that term is nonetheless idiosyncratic. Hybrid warfare employs various threats—conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, and terrorist acts and criminal disorder—to target an adversary's specific vulnerabilities. The question remains whether the term is substantive or as Pyotr Topychkanov argues, "a propaganda cliché" whose "features...are too unspecific to form the basis for a new term." While it is certainly faddish to brand conflicts as hybrid it does not necessarily improve one's understanding of the conditions it is intended to illuminate. The term implies a substantive distinction when in reality it may simply represent warfare waged at a less acute level, a figurative "gray zone" in which other countries, e.g., NATO, are unlikely to interfere. Ruslan Pukhov makes this case:
“The statement by Petro Poroshenko is addressed to illegal armed groups. We are not an illegal armed group. Illegal armed groups are bandits, and we are the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, which protects the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Therefore, this statement does not apply to us."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg puts it succinctly: “Of course, there’s nothing new in hybrid war. It’s as old as the Trojan Horse." It may be that Ukraine is simply more susceptible to these tactics than other countries: in the words of Lieutenant General Riho Terra, who commands Estonia's defense forces, his "is a functioning society. We are not like Ukraine." He continued, “Hybrid warfare is nothing new. You can deal with it only with the cohesion of the nation, with integrity, with all society working together.” András Rácz and others claim Russia largely disabled the Ukrainian government by means of hybrid war. Accepting the effect but reserving judgment on the claimed hybrid cause neither denies nor diminishes the malevolent effect of Russian support for separatism in eastern Ukraine, or Russian leaders' determination to exploit the situation to their geopolitical advantage. It can be argued that Russia has exploited fractures within Ukrainian society more than it has caused them. The mantra of hybrid warfare hinders rather than helps us to understand this dynamic since it attributes all things bad to Russia's invisible hand. A more salient distinction is between conflict and warfare. Kenneth Boulding formulated a good working definition in the early 1960s: conflict, he wrote, is "a situation of competition in which the parties are aware of the incompatibility of potential future positions and in which each party wishes to occupy a position that is incompatible with the wishes of the other." The situation in the most acute conflict zone—eastern Ukraine's Donbas region—fits that definition well. The Donbas separatists' objective of a quasi-autonomous region within some sort of federal structure—Ukraine recast as a veritable Yugoslavia—is simply incompatible with the idea of Ukrainian nationhood. The conflict in Ukraine has manifold ethnic (in the sense of language-as-identity), political and economic dimensions. Each faction is animated by different end-goals—be they political, ethnic, or otherwise—that are the mortar binding members. While the insurrection in the east is its most visible facet, internecine conflict is found in varying intensities across Ukraine. Take for example the All-Ukrainian Union "Freedom" political party—commonly known as Svoboda—which is the direct descendant of the fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU):
"The actions attributed to so-called hybrid warfare are fairly standard to any 'low intensity' armed conflict of recent decades, if not centuries. It is difficult to imagine any country using military force without providing informational support, using methods of 'secret warfare,' attempting to erode enemy forces, exploiting internal ethnic, social, economic, political or other divisions in the enemy camp, and without the use of retaliatory economic sanctions. These have been the fundamentals of war since antiquity."
While Svoboda's racial views are extreme, its goal of a Ukraine anchored in Europe is heir to a century of Ukrainian nationalist thought and aspirations of “Ukraine as a part of Mitteleuropa,” as Tomasz Stryjek wrote. That this belief is not part of a clearly articulated doctrine is excusable: Irina Bogochevskaya maintains Ukraine had no geopolitical doctrine because for most of the 20th century, it lacked the fundamental factor of state sovereignty. Dontsov himself was painted (by Russia) with the epithet of “Mazepism” (mazepynstvo). That term was derived from the name of Ivan Mazepa, the Ukrainian military commander who famously sided with the Sweden against Peter the Great during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) in an abortive attempt to assert Ukraine’s independence. Underlying Ukraine's internecine conflict is an insidious (if foundational) belief that linguistic identity defines ethnic identity. It is one paradoxically held by Russian irredentists and Ukrainian ultranationalists alike. Thus for both, a Russian speaker is a Russian. It is the basis of Ukraine's own experiment with language laws—to be a Ukrainian, one must speak Ukrainian—the effect of which in a country where at most half of citizens speak the language is to fractionalize, not unite. Russian irredentists subscribe to the creed at the macro level, extending (welcomed or not) Russian national identity to Ukrainians, since by their logic, most speak Russian and therefore are Russian. Thus the unresolved (and perhaps in a rising sense, unresolvable) conflict between of ethnic identity cum linguistic identity, and what historian Patrick Geary calls "‘two models of peoplehood," one "ethnic" (in political terms, the federal model favored by Russia and Donbas separatists) and the other "constitutional". It is ironic that both ultra-nationalist Ukrainians who populate the country's political far right, and Russia-leaning separatists in eastern Ukraine, eschew any suggestion of a constitutional Ukraine that embraces many gentes—Russians included—each with its own customs and language. The Rise of Ukraine's Volunteer Militias "Rise, like lions after slumber In unvanquishable number!" --Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy (1819) An under noticed yet defining characteristic of the Donbas conflict is that it is waged in substantial part, not by Ukrainian armed forces, but by private militias under loose to no government command. When Ukraine's regular armed forces repeatedly proved ineffective and unprepared, into the breach stepped the so-called "volunteer battalions," with their independent funding and training capabilities. Following Russia's February 2014 Crimea intervention, the Ukrainian parliament in March authorized the re-formation (it had been disbanded in 2000) of the Natsionalʹna hvardiya Ukrayiny (“National Guard of Ukraine”) under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The following month, acting Minister Arsen Avakov authorized the formation of batalʹyony operatyvnoho pryznachennya or "special purpose battalions" attached to National Guard units. It was intended to bring the private militias under some governmental command structure. The Defense Ministry followed in May with the formation of "territorial defense battalions," which were mobilized the following month by presidential order. The Ukrainian government's employment of special purpose and territorial defense battalions is understandable given the exigencies in the country's east, and Russia's annexation and occupation of Crimea. It had the unintended effect, however, of "certifying" (read: legitimizing) far right and ultra-nationalist private militias of dubious provenance. Events led Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council to declare "right-wing civic movements are not perceived by Ukrainian society as a threat." Its director, Oleksandr Turchynov, went further:
"Svoboda propaganda is especially clear on one point: members attempt everywhere to emphasize the idea of ethnicity as the basis for the consolidation of the nation. They also insist on a Ukraine which is geopolitically a pivotal area of Europe and which must be separated from its Asiatic neighbor, the Russian Federation."
Anton Shekhovtsov and Andreas Umland raise "the paradox of ultranationalist parties becoming involved in a protest movement whose thrust is toward greater integration between Ukraine and the European Union." While it is a point of debate whether the volunteer brigades express larger political or social trends afoot in Ukraine, they have unquestionably morphed into a de facto fourth branch of Ukrainian civil society. Among the fifty-odd pro-Kyev volunteer battalions active at one time or another in the Donbas conflict, six battalions predominate. Azov Battalion. The Batalʹyon Azov was founded in March 2014 and takes its name from the coastal region where it is based in the city of Mariupol. It evolved out of Patriót Ukrayíny (“Patriots of Ukraine”), the paramilitary arm of the neo-Nazi Sotsial-Natsionalʹna Asambleya (“Social-National Assembly”), which was a founding organization of Praviy Sektor (see below). Its commander is a Ukrainian Parliament member, Andrei Biletsky, who also directs the Patriots of Ukraine and the Social-National Assembly. The Azov Battalion was a so-called “special purpose battalion” under the Ministry of Internal Affairs until October 2014, when it was made part of the National Guard, which battalion members serve under contract. The epithet "neo-Nazi" is used somewhat indiscriminately in Ukrainian political discourse today, so some substantiation is in order. The section of Biletsky's 2010 manifesto Ukrayinsʹkyy Sotsial-Natsionalizm ("Ukrainian National Socialism") titled Rasovistʹ—the literal translation is "Racism" but a more nuanced one extends to the idea of racial or ethnic purity. Biletsky wrote:
"That's why all patriots, particularly from the Right Sector, who are ready to defend Ukraine in arms, decided to join our Armed Forces and the National Guard."
Lest anyone miss the point, Biletsky writes later "Thus, National Socialism raises the aegis of all the ancient Ukrainian Aryan values that have been forgotten in today's society. Only their revival and embodiment in the struggle of a group of fanatical champions can lead to the final victory of European civilization in the world." Dnipro Battalion. Batalʹyon «Dnipro» was founded in April 2014 by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. It is also known as "Dniepro-1" for the charitable organization (Fund Dnipro-1) Kolomoyskyi uses to fund the unit. The battalion commander, Yuriy Bereza, is a Ukrainian Parliament member (he sits with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk's People's Front) as is fellow battalion member and company commander, Volodymyr Parasyuk, who sits as an independent. It is based in Dnipropetrovsk and subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The battalion operates as an assault and a policing unit, with a reported force of 2000-4000 combatants and an additional 20,000 in reserve. Better equipped than Ukraine's regular army, the Dnipro Battalion claims to have Romanian and Georgian military advisers. Donbas Battalion. Semen Semenchenko founded Batalʹyon "Donbass" in April 2014 as a territorial defense battalion. It was absorbed into the National Guard as a reserve battalion tactical group in June 2014 and fields a reported force of 400-600 combatants. This number is said to include a significant number of Georgians. Its commander, Taras Konstanchuk, declared in November 2014 interview, “Should a single city be surrendered, the president will fly off his chair, there will be a military coup and the soldiers will take power into their own hands.” The battalion, known as the "Little Black Men" for its all-black uniform—a deliberate play on the term "little green men" used for Russian forces in Crimea who wore uniforms with no insignia—in late August was deployed to the second line of defense around Mariupol. Right Sector. Praviy Sektor emerged in November 2013 as an umbrella formed by several far-right and ultra-nationalist political groups, including:
"Our nationalism amounts to nothing—a mere castle built of sand—if it is not built on a foundation of blood, a foundation of race. The error common to traditional views of nationalism is to put the cart before the horse by claiming 'the nation' is a linguistic, cultural, territorial or socio-economic phenomenon. We certainly do not reject the importance of spiritual, cultural and linguistic factors, nor pride of place. But our deepest held conviction is that all this derives from our race, our racial identity. If the Ukrainian spirit, culture and language are unique, it is only because our racial identity is unique. If Ukraine is a paradise on earth, it is only because our race turned her into one."
"Accordingly, healing the nation's body begins with racial purification. And then, with its racial body healed, the nation's spirit will regenerate along with its culture, its language, and everything else. In addition to the matter of racial purity, we must be mindful of the relative value of other races. Ukrainians are part (and one of the largest and purest) of the European White race. The one that created a great civilization, that achieved mankind's greatest accomplishments. The historic mission of our nation in this watershed century is to lead the White peoples of the world in the last crusade for their existence. To lead the crusade against the Semite-led subhumans."
In the face of sustained, significant battlefield losses suffered by Ukraine's under-trained and -equipped armed forces—and popular opposition to a third mobilization to replenish its ranks—the volunteer battalions bear an increased burden without (in their view) receiving formal recognition by the government to memorialize their independent status. Some suggest a coming alliance of convenience between the volunteer battalions and Donbas separatists, both intent on displacing the Poroshenko government: the polemicist Maxim Revrebe claims the Aidar Battalion is in talks with the Narodnoye opolcheniye Donbassa ("Donbass People's Militia"). Yarosh himself earlier (in March 2014) declared for a non-aligned Ukraine, and against membership in the European Union and NATO. Speaking on Kanal Ukraina ("Channel Ukraine"), he said:
"We perform functions the government should fulfill. Here we are, for example, fighting to protect the country—in a normal country we would long since have been given legal status. In addition, we help to fight corruption and corrupt officials. That is not our role—it is the role of public authorities, of prosecutors and courts. But we still don't have a fully functional law enforcement system. It was corrupt in the time of Kravchuk, Kuchma, Yuschenko and Yanukovych, and it remains so today."
What is interesting is that this statement was revived—some seventeen months hence—to explain Right Sector's alleged withdrawal from eastern Ukraine, supposedly in reaction to a presidential order directing the Interior Ministry and the SBU to disarm all "illegal" groups in the aftermath of the Mukachevo incident. Yarosh was quick to post a lengthy defense of the volunteer battalions' legal status on his Facebook page. Right Sector spokesperson Artem Skoropadsky added:
"Right Sector has not been and is not in favor of Ukraine joining the EU. We believe Ukraine ought to be a subject, not an object, of geopolitics. We support maintaining Ukraine's non-aligned status. Like the Donbass miners, we object to the idea of NATO bases in Ukraine, which means we are against Ukraine's membership in NATO. We are addressing both people who favor the EU, and those who wish an alliance with Russia. I emphasize: we favor the option of a non-aligned Ukraine."
Yarosh added for effect in a Facebook post the following day, "And if someone chooses to leave us on the front, we will stand alone to take up the cudgel for the defense of the State." What is Russia's End Game? "We are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other." -- Vladimir Putin (2015) In the Russian mindset, all conflict is a means to a geopolitical end. The use of "nonmilitary instruments"—for example, the purposeful distortion of an adversary's sensibilities, what Peter Pomerantsev calls "the weaponization of information" —is said by proponents to rival the effective power of explosive weapons. Vladislav Surkov calls it non-linear war, which Valery Gerasimov elaborates in a distinctly Russian approach to modern warfare:
"The statement by Petro Poroshenko is addressed to illegal armed groups. We are not an illegal armed group. Illegal armed groups are bandits, and we are a Ukrainian volunteer corps that protects the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Therefore, the statement does not apply to us."
It is tantamount "to wag[ing] war without ever announcing it officially." Propagandistic "disinformation"—from the Russian neologism dezinformatsia—strives to demoralize an adversary. "Every disinformation message," Ladislav Bittman wrote, "must at least partially correspond to reality or generally accepted views." The overall purpose is to damage the target by playing on the audience's prejudices and biases, allowing disinformation to be effective even when it comes from a dubious source. Case in point, on 27 August the Russian ultra-nationalist news portal FAN published a story attributed to an unnamed "source in Slavyansk" (the Donetsk Oblast city called Sloviansk in Ukrainian) who claimed the SBU is preparing to use "Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries" in "a large-scale provocation" involving a chemical attack with chlorine gas. Referencing the earlier 1 August "dirty bomb" story, FAN quotes another "unnamed source in the DNR administration":
"A perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war."
The author cautions that FAN is a highly politicized Russian news portal of dubious credibility, and the story's sourcing is suspicious. Moreover, this is not the first story from a Russian media source about an impending "false flag" chemical weapon attack using chlorine: in late May, the Russian government news portal Sputnik reported "With assistance of biotechnology experts from the United States, the Ukrainian army is getting ready to produce chemical weapons to use against the Donbass militia." It quoted a DPR military spokesperson regarding "intelligence reports on chemical weapons being developed on Ukrainian territory" discovered at a storage facility in the Kharkiv village of Kochetivka, after a week earlier, 20 trucks were observed delivering five tons of an "unknown poisonous substance." Similarly, a year ago, Russia's semi-official NTV television channel reported that Ukrainian Defense and Interior ministry forces were preparing to mount a "large-scale offensive in Donetsk and Lugask," quoting separatist militia sources about an impending attack on "a wastewater treatment plant where 150 tons of chlorine was stored." The Russian language news portal Vesti reported the site in question was in the Donetsk Oblast city of Gorlovka (in Ukrainian, Horlivka) and that Ukrainian armed forces delivered three OTR-21 Tochka tactical ballistic missiles [NATO reporting name: SS-21 Scarab] to the government's Kramatorsk airbase in northern Donetsk in preparation for the attack. Amidst renewed warnings of impeding false flag attacks with chemical weapons à la Syria, and insinuations of a devil's alliance between Right Sector and the Donbas separatists, the Russian media warns of an impending Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas. "Despite criticisms to the contrary, the Minsk Accords have given us leeway to strengthen our defense," said President Poroshenko, presaging what the Russian news portal Rossiyskaya Gazeta called a Ukrainian "blitzkrieg" in the Donbas. He declared, "The era of mindless pacifism and myopic neglect of our national defense is irreversibly consigned to the past. The analysis published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta predicts a two-pronged eastward attack, north and south of the city of Donetsk converging on Uspenska, a strategic border checkpoint 23km south of Luhansk. Uspenska sits on a major highway route to Russia, and recapturing the checkpoint (which separatist forces took last August) is critical to Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. The Rossiyskaya Gazeta article conveys a great deal of detail regarding the composition and disposition of the Ukrainian attack force, and by so doing makes an explicit point about Russian operational intelligence in the theatre, and Ukraine's implied willingness to breach the Minsk Accords. It includes a map showing the Ukrainian force advancing to the Russian border, the implication of which is ominous.
"Kyev probably understood that nuclear material is too difficult to work with and too easy to trace, so they decided to switch to a chemical weapon. We think they'll do what the Syrian militants did—use it against their own soldiers and civilians, then accuse us, inviting foreign reporters to see the corpses and scandalize the whole world, demanding that NATO forces bomb us."
Source: Rossiyskaya GazetaThis "blitzkrieg" warning was sounded elsewhere in the Russian media. A 21 August story on the Russian Defense Ministry's television network Zvezda ("The Star") website claims the objective of the coming Ukrainian offensive is to "decouple" Donestk and Luhansk "in order to reach the border with the Russian Federation." "According to Kiev's plan," it continues, "the 'blitzkrieg' will break and destroy the Narodnoye opolcheniye Donbassa ("Donbass People's Militia")." A day earlier, PolitNavigator reported the DPR Defense Ministry's claim that details of the order of battle were obtained "from a source in the Ukrainian General Staff." Lest the point be missed, the PolitNavigator story was illustrated with a photograph of Hitler looking at maps during Operation Citadel, the Nazi army's two-pronged attack eastward through Ukraine targeting Kursk. The Ukrainian force will attack, according the DPR Defense Ministry, from the direction of Mariupol and Debaltseve in a pincher movement targeting Uspenska in order to prevent civilians from fleeing to Russian border, and a simultaneous offensive from the north and south on Ilovais'k, a city located some 45km west of Donetsk, "to close the ring around the capital of the republic." In this context of course it makes complete sense that Russia would aggressively seek to drive a wedge between Right Sector and other volunteer battalions, and the Ukrainian government, since without the volunteer battalions, a Ukrainian offensive is unlikely to succeed. With them, however, Ukraine will confront Russia with the choice of intervening overtly and forcefully, or risking its rump Donbas republics. One might speculate that, faced with a genuine existential threat to its Donbas proxies, the prospect of an actual false flag attack of the sort postulated by FAN might become a live option, again on the Syrian model. This in part underlies Russia’s goal of pushing eastern Ukraine back to the Kyev government, saddling it with financial and legal responsibility for the contentious region over which it would likely have little political control. Whither Ukraine? "Forgetting...is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation."-- Ernest Renan The month of August ended with President Poroshenko presenting "irrefutable evidence of armed aggression against Ukraine" by, of course, Russia. "No longer is Ukraine's armed forces opposed by mixed groups of Russians and terrorists, as was the case at the beginning of Russia's aggression." Instead, Ukraine now faces "full military units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation," said to number some 33,000 troops. SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak "stressed the intensification of hostilities in eastern Ukraine." Poroshenko ended by analogizing Russia's role in eastern Ukraine today to the Soviet one in Spain during its civil war of the late 1930s, "when Red Army generals used fictitious names." It is an appealing suggestion though perhaps an under informed one, since Michael Alpert, the historian perhaps best versed in the Republican army archives in the Servicio Histórico Militar, largely dismisses suggestions of "a powerful Russian influence" as propaganda and exaggeration. According to him, "Soviet aid was primarily advisory, and these advisors do not appear to have exceeded this function, with the exception of very specialized assignments." It would be easy to dismiss this as mere posturing in the context of the ongoing "Normandy Four" consultations, given German Chancellor Angela Merkel's suggestion of a summit on Ukraine within the so-called "Normandy format". The symmetry between the claims of Ukraine, and Russian and the Donbas separatists, regarding the coming confrontation should give pause for thought, however. Geary writes, "It is impossible to map linguistic or ethnic identities onto national territories." Not that it stops anyone from trying:
Is this worldview congruent with the United States' geopolitical interests? Henry Kissinger recently made the case against it:
"What strikes us when we compare these two worlds—the European and the Russian? The grandeur, the magnificence of history as a whole...the primacy of law and logic, all in the West. And in Russia? Monotony, the dullness and torpor of individual protagonists, the trifling importance of historic events, the enormous influence of the populist element, and the disproportionate dominance of the role of the state apparatus."
Nobody, least of all Dr. Kissinger, would argue the task is easy. The illusion right now is that the volunteer battalions upon which the Ukrainian government is substantially reliant—comprised mostly of ultra-nationalists who espouse fascist, racist, often baldly neo-Nazi ideologies—will either radically transform their dogma, or recede after the fight and demand no role in the country's governance. Underlying this illusion is gratuitous faith in their affinity for Western institutions, beyond their simplistic cant of a presumptive racial sodality. Consider this statement in June by Azov Brigade deputy commander Oleg Odnorozhenko:
"The United States has put forward no concept of its own except that Russia will one day join the world community by some automatic act of conversion. [...O]ne should at least examine the possibility of some cooperation between the West and Russia in a militarily nonaligned Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis is turning into a tragedy because it is confusing the long-range interests of global order with the immediate need of restoring Ukrainian identity...It means that breaking Russia has become an objective; the long-range purpose should be to integrate it."
What Odnorozhenko is saying is that the United States and NATO represent a mere flag of convenience. Dmytro Yarosh once described Ukraine as "on the edge of two worlds," a phrase he used as the title of a 2008 essay in which he drives the point home:
"I can tell our European right-wing colleagues only one thing: we...have no illusions about the EU, NATO and other Euroatlantic international structures. Our attitude toward them is quite critical and negative. However, at the same time, we understand clearly enough what kind of a neighbor to the northeast we have, that is, the Russian Federation."
If there is a simple answer to this dilemma, it eludes the author. What is clear, however, is the danger posed by our continued enabling of these violent and malevolent groups, elements of which are now morphing into criminal syndicates. “Everything will turn out right; the world is built on that.” So wrote Mikhail Bulgakov in his satire on Soviet life. It is a warning against wishful thinking. In its struggle against an irredentist Russia, Ukraine must not lose sight of it and another truism: the border separating Ukraine and Russia is not ethnic, nor is it language. Rather, it is moral and geopolitical. The Ukrainian government would be wise to ponder the historic record of democratic regimes seeking accommodation with more muscular, anti-democratic elements, on the false assumption they can be shaken loose once the peace is restored.
"Do we forget that one of the guarantors of Ukraine's independence in exchange for [Ukraine's] nuclear disarmament is once and again the same United States that is the foundation of NATO. And what's really responsible for Ukrainian accession to this military-political bloc? Yes, all right—a new standard of living. Namely, the de-Christianization of society; full legalization and promotion of sexual perversions; radical feminism that will destroy the Ukrainian patriarchal family; the pacifism that thrives in NATO countries, turning men into mindless cattle; and so forth..."
"And how can NATO provide the most important thing—the security of the Ukrainian nation? By building their military bases on our land? By placing their garrisons in our cities? By putting their missiles on alert? I am convinced this is not about Ukrainians and their security, but about the wealth of the Ukrainian land..."